The Trunk (2100 words)

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by Paul Briggs

It started with a conversation with Mrs. Crawford at the Scheiner Street Sewing Shop. It was April of ’91, I was getting ready to graduate from high school, and as soon as I was out the door I planned to pack my bags and head for L.A.

Step one? Get some bags. I mentioned to Mrs. Crawford that I was having trouble finding a suitcase big enough to hold my clothes.

“I might be able to help you there,” she said. “My sister Jane — have you met her? She’s married to George Shaddick. They live up in Rice Lake. They’re cleaning out their attic, and they have a lot of stuff they’re trying to sell… or get rid of, anyway. One of the things they’ve got is a big old steamer trunk. Have you ever seen one of those? Some people use them as coffee tables. I think it would be about the right size for you.”

“That sounds good,” I said. “Do you know how much they want for it?”

“They’re giving it away.”

“What? You mean, like, for free?” I admit — when it comes to surprising bits of information out of nowhere, I can be as slow in the uptake as anybody else.

“They tried selling it, but they couldn’t find anybody willing to come and get it out of the attic. Everybody wanted Mr. Shaddick to deliver it himself, and nobody was offering enough to make it worth his while.”

“So… all I have to do is get in touch with them and drive up to Rice Lake?” This was sounding too good to be true.

“Would you like their phone number?”

* * *

Long story short — the Shaddicks had heard of me, and they would be delighted to meet me in person, especially if I was willing to come over and take a certain big heavy object off their hands. So that Saturday I took a little drive up north. I’d actually been to Rice Lake before. Any town in northwestern Wisconsin with a high school that has a girls’ basketball team, the Lynxes have played them, and that’s a place where I am still spoken of with awe, fear and trembling. I hope.

For Christmas I’d gotten a car of my very own — a customized black ’84 Plymouth Reliant in great condition. What I mean by customized is Mom paid some mechanic friends of Dad’s to take out the driver’s side front and rear seats and replace them with a seat that was built onto the frame of the driver’s side rear seat and rested on the floor. This gave me just about enough head and leg room to get by with. Certainly nothing to complain about after basically learning how to drive in the fetal position with my knees in my face and my right elbow constantly hitting the teacher.

It was a little under an hour’s drive to Rice Lake. I could have gone faster, I suppose, only… I don’t know why, but there’s something about owning a car that somebody went to a lot of trouble to make just right for me that makes me want to drive it carefully. You’d think knowing my neck is on the line would have the same effect.

I found a parking spot within a block of the address. As I pulled myself forward and curled up in preparation for getting out the door, I felt that distinct tightness around the crotch that meant I hadn’t made these jeans as well as I thought I had and pretty soon something was going to give.

(You’re all wondering how I get out of my car. Here’s my preferred method — unfasten my seatbelt, scoot forward on my butt, open the door with my left hand, swivel ninety degrees so I’m facing out, get my feet on the ground, push forward and unfold myself.)

Some guy out walking his dog said “Holy shit!” as he saw me getting out of my car. So I turned to him, smiled and said “And a very holy shit to you, too,” wishing I had a hat I could tip to complete the effect. (This wasn’t the first time I’d been greeted that way.)

The Shaddicks were about seventy. George had hurt his back somehow or other, and Jane was a fairly small woman, so I was going to have to do all the work here. I went up the first stairwell squatting low and keeping one hand on the bannister. Mrs. Shaddick looked a little alarmed while I was doing this.

"I know," I said. "I look like one of those Russian dancers."

There was a door in the guest bedroom that led to a stairwell no wider than the doorway, with a lower than usual ceiling. That was the only way in or out of the attic. Even my Russian Dancer walk wasn’t going to work here, unless I wanted my knees banging against the walls. So… how to get up there? It looked like the only way was on my hands and knees, and the stairs were splintery and covered with dust.

“Hang on,” I said. “I need to go back to my car and get something.”

* * *

While Dad was teaching me to drive, he also taught me some basic car repair — changing a tire, jump-starting, checking and refilling the oil and so on. Among the stuff in the trunk was a hydraulic jack, a jack stand, a lug wrench… and a pair of work gloves, so I could use all this stuff even in northern Wisconsin’s famous winters.

The gloves weren’t my best work. They were just canvas with a layer of insulating tape laid down in small strips. But they fit, and they kept my hands warm and mobile. Now I was ready to tackle those stairs.

As it turned out, I didn’t actually have to crawl up on my hands and knees — I could put my feet on the stairs. But I did have to hunker down on the landing where the stairs turned right, and that’s when the seat of my jeans finally went rrrrrrrip. And they did this right when Mr. Shaddick was watching me go upstairs, giving him a really good look at my panties. Thank God they were clean.

So I quickly swiveled to the right and started climbing the rest of the stairs, trying to ignore the breeze around my groin. I thought to myself why is it always the crotch? And then I thought because that’s the part that gets the most stress when I do all my bending and twisting. Some questions really do have answers. Next time I’ll make the seams even stronger. Maybe work a pleat in there somehow, if I can do it without it looking like the world’s worst case of cameltoe.

Mrs. Shaddick, who was walking ahead of me, opened the attic door for me. As soon as she did, I could understand why she wanted her attic cleaned out. There were so many cardboard boxes stacked in towers, so many old pieces of furniture… I had to shove a couple of nice old cane-back chairs to one side with my elbow just to get my whole body in there.

Once I got to the middle of the attic, there was a spot right under the summit of the roof where I could stand up straight. So I got up, took off my sweater and tied it around my waist. No more flashing people for today. I did some stretches, then turned to Mrs. Shaddick and said, “So, let’s see this trunk.”

The trunk, of course, was up underneath a window with a couple of boxes on top of it, and just to get there I’d have to rearrange a lot more stuff. Mrs. Shaddick was very apologetic. She went downstairs and brought me some iced tea while I worked.

About twenty minutes later, I finally got a look at the thing, and it was worth the effort.

“It’s beautiful,” I said. “Mind if I look it over a little?” I still couldn’t quite believe they were just giving something like this away (minus the labor cost of getting at it, of course).

“Go ahead,” she said.

I took out a tape measure. It was 39” by 24” by 13”. I picked it up and examined it by the light of the window. Everything was good.

Better than good, in fact. One thing about learning stitching and leatherworking and such is that it really gives you an appreciation of craftsmanship, and in the case of this trunk there was a lot to appreciate. The box itself was strong, lightweight pine. The sides were covered with dark taupe canvas, still in perfect condition. The slats were honey-colored oak, just begging for a good dusting and polishing to make them stand out against the canvas. The edges and corners were padded with matte-black leather, riveted in place. The rivets, clasps and hinges were black iron. A couple of thick black leather straps were buckled around it.

This trunk was the product of a different era. Just looking at it got my imagination going. Teddy Roosevelt might have brought it on safari. The guys who opened up King Tut’s tomb might have put the stuff they found in it. Pieces of luggage like this burned on the Hindenburg and sank with the Titanic. Even the name “steamer trunk” made me think of a time when ships ran on coal.

It had black leather handles at each end, and was obviously meant to be carried by two men — one man would have had to reach just to get his arms around it. Not a problem for yours truly, of course, as long as I remembered to lift with my legs instead of my back. But it drove home that this was carried by somebody who could not only afford to keep servants, but take them with him.

“Who did this belong to originally?”

“My grandfather.”

“What did he do?” I’m already picturing him as some kind of international diplomat, maybe a spy…

“If I remember right, he worked for Gulf Oil. He took this on trips to Louisiana and Texas.”

Oh. That’s… something, I guess.

“Well, thank you again,” I say.

“Don’t mention it. I’m glad we could give it to somebody who has a use for it. You’re sure you can get it down again?”

“No problem.”

Well… not too much problem. I got down on my knees and balanced the trunk on my back. Mrs. Shaddick held it steady and unfastened the straps so I could fasten them around my torso. Then I went down the stairs the same way I went up, only backwards.

I got to the landing, swiveled around and looked over my shoulder at Mr. Shaddick, who was standing in the doorway. “Okay, I’m going to back up now,” I said. I should probably have flashing red lights on my butt for times like this.

* * *

Once I got it in the garage and gave it a good dusting, I felt… dissatisfied. Not with the trunk — it was still magnificent. It was everything else. My ripped-but-not-on-purpose-and-in-the-wrong-place jeans. My tape-and-canvas gloves (which were just meant for roadside work, so I probably shouldn’t have counted them). My artificial leather sandals with soles made from strips of old bicycle tire that pebbles kept getting stuck between. My lower-class tastes, my small-town life… none of which ever seemed like anything to be ashamed of until now. Well, my sweater was nice. It was chocolate brown and umber yarn which I’d knitted into a sort of rippling duck-feather pattern. It worked pretty well with my eyes and complexion. So that was something.

All the same, I still felt like this trunk was meant to be owned and used by seasoned travelers. Men and women of distinction. Now here it was in the hands of a high-school girl who had yet to travel outside the U.S. and whose biggest distinction was… bigness.

But then, why was I going to college if not to improve myself? Learn new things, broaden my horizons, generally acquire class. And while I was at it, make some good clothes that would go with my new suitcase.

My mom’s a classy lady. My dad is pure unadulterated redneck. When I thought about becoming classier myself, it felt like taking sides, and not the side I’d normally take. But who ever said I had to completely turn my back on one world to choose the other?

This trunk might be too upscale for Big Reenie, but it was just right for Irene J. Harris. (Hey, if Walt Whitman was large enough to contain multitudes, I can definitely manage at least two.)
I got the idea for this one when my parents mentioned a trunk they had given away to get it out of their attic.
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